A Rare Paulus Organ Concerto, and a Sea of Coughing

27/11/2017

Copland, Paulus, Tchaikovsky: Paul Jacobs (organ), Cleveland Orchestra / Giancarlo Guerrero (conductor), Severance Hall, Cleveland, 24.11.2017. (MSJ)

Copland – El Salón México
Paulus – Grand Concerto for Solo Organ and Orchestra
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.4 in F minor Op.36

It’s flu season in Cleveland.

Either that or dozens of bronchially afflicted citizens showed up at Severance Hall since Tchaikovsky was on the program, thinking that it might be tryouts for the role of human cannon in the 1812 Overture. But that work wasn’t on the program, it was his Fourth Symphony, and almost every time Giancarlo Guerrero and the Cleveland Orchestra tried to achieve a breathtaking pianissimo, they were bombarded.

Typical seasonal noise marred a good but not great rendition of the Tchaikovsky. The real story, however, was the local premiere of the Grand Concerto for Solo Organ and Orchestra by American composer Stephen Paulus. Before his unexpected passing at age 65 in 2014, Paulus had written four organ concertos—the most of any prominent composer since Handel.

Positioned at the keyboard console in the partially raised pit of the hall, organist Paul Jacobs was directly behind and slightly below the conductor, which proved fine for close coordination of solo and orchestral parts. The Paulus starts mysteriously, with dark organ chords intermingling with mutterings from the low strings. Quickly building to a peak, the movement soon lives up to its composer’s instructions, ‘Vivacious and spirited’. As pointed out in the pre-concert talk by Meaghan Heinrich, the work is both serious and playful, often alternating from one mood to the next as its episodes unfold. The first movement’s lively close drew a spontaneous round of applause.

The second movement begins ‘Austere—foreboding’, but later incorporates mischievous scherzando elements, before yielding to an energetic, toccata-like finale. A first listening didn’t entirely convince that the movement (titled ‘Jubilant’) succeeds in casting the organ in the role of rhythmic shaman. But the capacity crowed showed delight at the triple treat: a delightful new work, a masterful soloist, and an authoritative conductor.

For an encore, Jacobs brought down the house with a brilliant transcription of the ‘Sinfonia’ from Bach’s Cantata No. 29. Jacobs played with ample charisma, and it was a thing of wonder to watch his arm lash out with lightning speed and precision, changing organ stops as the notes ran almost continuously.

The opener was Aaron Copland’s breakthrough bit of populism, El Salón México, inspired by a dance hall that the composer found in 1932, when he visited Mexican composer Carlos Chavez. Guerrero negotiated its metrical thickets with ease and assurance, encouraging the orchestra to play brightly, with maximum color and humor. The soloists were outstanding, particularly Daniel McKelway on the E-flat clarinet.

The Tchaikovsky was good, though surprisingly low-voltage at the beginning. But Guerrero looked at the long picture, gradually building up the tension level across the first movement. The woodwinds brought fresh flashes of personality in the ghost-waltz second theme, flecks of color against the strings’ deep sonorities.

Oboist Frank Rosenwein set a flexible, expressive tone for the slow movement solo, not entirely sustained by Guerrero, who focused more forward movement. The pizzicato scherzo was more accurate than inspired, falling short of Tchaikovsky’s description of tipsy fantasy. The finale brought a satisfying close, with the conductor opting for some distinctive phrasing choices.

The orchestra’s sound was not at its most refined under Guerrero, who tended to keep a loose leash on the brass and percussion. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though I still fondly recall fondly a performance 17 years ago, led by then-music-director Christoph von Dohnányi, which was uncommonly elegant and dramatically exciting. Guerrero led with confidence and flair, and received a cheering ovation, but the performance never quite reached the core of Tchaikovsky’s world.

Or maybe it was just the human cannons that kept it at bay.

Mark Sebastian Jordan

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